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Olympic journey will continue for wrestler Elena Pirozhkova

Elena Pirozhkova celebrates after winning the 63-kilogram women's final match at the U.S. Olympic wrestling team trials Saturday. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Wrestler Elena Pirozhkova earned her second trip to the Olympics at the U.S. trials here this weekend. She also wrestled at the 2012 London Games, where her most famous "opponent'' by far was -- Michelle Obama.

The first lady was visiting athletes at Team USA house at those London Olympics, shaking hands, exchanging hugs and posing for selfies -- "She was really down to earth,'' Pirozhkova said -- when the wrestler decided it would be great to crack a joke. "Can I pick you up?'' she asked Obama.

"Then I'm like, 'Gosh, I can't believe I just said that,' '' Pirozhkova recalled. "So then I had to follow through on it.''

Obama accepted the offer -- later saying that she hoped it would help the wrestler's Olympic performance in some way -- and allowed the athlete to pick her up and hold her. "I couldn't drop her,'' Pirozhkova said. Pirozhkova most definitely did not drop her, but did she pin the first lady?

"No,'' Pirozhkova said. "The Secret Service was around, so if I had tried that, I probably wouldn't be here.''

It was a pretty amazing moment -- the photo wrestling teammate Clarissa Chun shared on Twitter ranked up there with the images of Bela Karolyi holding gymnast Kerri Strug at the 1996 Olympics.

"I was like, Elena is picking up the first lady. This is awesome,'' Chun said. "It was awesome that the first lady was willing to be carried.''

And it would have seemed even more mind-boggling if someone had predicted 25 years earlier that the wife of the U.S. president would be picked up and held in the arms of someone from the Soviet Union.

Pirozhkova, you see, is originally from the old USSR and she has such an extraordinary background she says it should be a book or a movie. And she is right. Pirozhkova was born in Siberia in 1986 when the USSR still was in existence. When she was 3, her parents decided to leave the oppressive country and take their four children to the United States. It wasn't an easy journey.

"We went all across Europe on the way over and at one point we ran out of money and had to beg for food at the markets,'' Pirozhkova said. "My dad had to work odd jobs. When the kids got sick, they couldn't get a doctor. It's just a really phenomenal story of how they moved out.''

It wasn't exactly easy when they finally reached the United States and settled in Massachusetts. She says her father sometimes worked on farms for $5 an hour. At times, they needed to go on welfare. Meanwhile, the family grew to include nine children. Plus, there was the challenge of learning English.

"I remember going to kindergarten and not knowing a word of it,'' Pirozhkova said.

Nonetheless, she picked up English very quickly and rose from her family's difficult economic circumstances to represent her new country in the Olympics.

"If somebody told me I would be on the Olympic team as a kid, I never would have thought that was a possibility,'' she said. "I remember standing and watching the flame being lit in London and thinking it was one of the most amazing things in the world.''

After winning her 139-pound weight class at the U.S. trials over the weekend, Pirozhkova will get a chance to watch the flame being lit in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

"Last time, it was awesome just to make the team,'' she said. "This time when I made the team, I thought that I'm just a step away from making my goal.''

We'll see how Pirozhkova fares in Rio. And whether she lifts a medal on the podium -- or the first lady.

"She is tough. Determined. Strong. A beast. She's a great girl,'' Chun said. "She is always challenging people.''